U.S. freestyle skiing legend Shannon Bahrke Happe has been to the top of the mountain. She won silver in moguls at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and claimed the World Cup championship in 2003. Happe has also fallen hard as a rock on the slopes, breaking her jaw and suffering two serious knee injuries. The fact that Happe climbed the mountain again to win bronze at the 2010 Vancouver Games—her last Olympics—is a testament to her sheer mental and physical perseverance.
It’s fitting the mountain serves as the perfect metaphor for the free-spirited star. Her ups and downs competing on the Alps, Andes, Rockies, etc., make her relatable to non-Olympians. Hence, she founded Team Empower Hour, a corporate teambuilding company with locations in Salt Lake City and Park City. She uses her story as inspiration to others to reach their peak potential, no matter the obstacles.
Happe is also the mother of a daughter who’s 3 years old—the same age at which Happe picked up the sport. Whether her daughter will ski in her footsteps remains to be seen. But Americans can only hope the U.S. Olympic team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is comprised of athletes with Happe’s combination of talent and willpower. The colorful Happe discussed with Connect Sports her journey toward winning Olympic glory and the story behind her pink hair.
Is it true that even though you were a Winter Olympics star, you don’t like the cold?
I hate the cold. I enjoy the snow; I think it’s beautiful. I love it when a storm comes in. If I could ski in a bikini or a short-sleeved shirt, I would do that. I love water skiing—in warm water.
How did you get into skiing?
Growing up in Tahoe, that’s just what you did. In the winter, you are surrounded by 8 feet of snow. You sled in your backyard, and then what else is there to do? For us, it was skiing.
You started skiing at age 3, but were reticent about freestyle. Why?
I never thought about being a competitor. I loved the freedom of skiing all day and going wherever I wanted with my friends. When I was 12, the coach of the Squaw Valley Freestyle Team said I had to try freestyle. I was like, “This looks dumb; it looks too physical; I’d never want to do that.” A couple of months later, I decided to try the “stupid” sport of mogul skiing and fell in love with the atmosphere.
Tell us more about that.
Moguls is a social sport. Rather than skiing with one or two friends, I did it with 50. As things got more serious down the line, that love of friendship and traveling the world together was my North Star. The culture of going wherever you wanted to go on the mountain and being with the people you enjoy captured everything I love about life in one sport.
You got recruited at age 12. Was that when you realized you were really good?
Oh, no—it was a lot later. I was a terrible at mogul skiing. I came in last all the time. But I kept at it and kept working on things, and slowly—and I mean slowly—I started to chip away at the differences in the scores beating me. In my first World Cup, I got second-to-last. I think that made me a fighter.
When did you win your first race?
I won my first event at Homewood, where I learned how to ski. I’ll never forget when I won my first World Cup. It was in 2002 in Germany, and I had just started to work with a hypnotherapist to believe I had the talent to win. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and set the foundation for me that I could actually compete with the best people in the world. It was a magical moment.
How did you get involved with hypnosis?
Leading up to the 2002 Olympics, I was getting 30th and 20th place. I was not going to qualify for the U.S. Ski Team, let alone the Olympic Team. When I came home for Christmas, I was devastated. I needed a miracle. My mom had studied for the bar—she was a lawyer—under hypnosis and also gave birth under hypnosis. She thought it was something that could help me. I told her I thought it was the craziest idea in the world, and I didn’t believe in it. She was like, ‘Honey, you’re the one who needs a miracle, not me.’
Can you describe the hypnosis process?
It’s not the crazy thing people think it is. When you meditate or go into deep-breath relaxation, that’s hypnosis. For me, it was putting my fears out there and learning they weren’t true. One of the things we worked on was “perfect practice means perfect runs.” I started to visualize the perfect run 100 times per day to gain that muscle memory, so that when I stepped out into the gate, I knew I could do it without a doubt. [The therapist and I] worked together for a few weeks over Christmas. I won
my next World Cup. Imagine that—going from 30th place to winning. It was pretty powerful.
Please put into words the pressure of competing in the Olympics.
You only have 30 seconds every four years to execute what you’ve been training for. To be able to ski well under that kind of pressure, there is nothing like it.
What do you remember most from the 2002 Games?
You can never prepare yourself. It was an overwhelming sensation. When walking into the opening ceremonies, American pride was coming out of my pores. I felt I was right where I was supposed to be, and everything I had done to get myself to that moment was perfect. I’ve never felt that way before or since. I knew I was going to ski unbelievably. The whole universe clicked into place.
What’s your competition routine like?
The one thing I do when I get to any course is look at the sky. Sometimes it is snowing. In Vancouver, it was raining. In Utah, it was a beautiful blue sky. It gives me a sense that [the world] is so much bigger than me. Then I look at the surrounding mountains—I have been so lucky to compete in the Alps, Andes, Rockies and all these incredible ranges. I usually take in the crowd, whose energy feeds my soul, before I look at the task at hand. Then all things wash away, and I focus on what I have to do: Get from point A to point B.
Not long after winning silver, you suffered a broken jaw and two major knee injuries. What were you thinking during that time?
It was scary. There were many times I felt like I was in Death Valley and had to get to the top of Everest. I had to trust the people working with me and let them help me get back to where I was. I couldn’t rely solely on myself. I needed experts to talk me up.
How did those injuries play into your third and final Olympics, in Vancouver?
When I won the silver medal, I was 21, and I don’t think I fully realized what it meant in that moment. Eight years later, to watch the flag go up after my knee surgeries and broken jaw—with me not being the favorite anymore—was special. Once you win once, you think you are going to be like Michael Phelps and win every time. My journey
was not like that. I overcame a lot.
Is that what helps you connect with the groups to whom you speak?
I know this may sound silly because I have two Olympic medals, but I am average. I didn’t take the entire world by storm. I am not the greatest skier of all time. If you ask anybody in my sport if they ever thought I was going to win two Olympic medals, they would not have had my name on their list. What makes me relatable is that I am just like everybody else. You have to seize the moment and work your buns off to get there. I was scared; I wasn’t the best—but, man, when I was given the opportunity, I seized it to get to the next level.
Returning to the beginning, what are your memories competing as a youth?
I’m lucky my mom had a job where she had the freedom to be with us. She was always the team mom. When I started to make the junior national championships, those became our family vacations. With international vacations, my parents came to the big ones—we couldn’t afford to come to every one.
What was your biggest lesson from those days?
I will never forget learning how to lose. Those contests set the tone for how I wanted to act.
Besides skiing, you also played soccer, softball and track. What’s your take on children specializing in one sport?
It scares me. You have to play different sports because you get a different perspective and skillset from every one you play. Soccer gave me quickness and helps me with hand-eye coordination. It breaks my heart when kids get put into a box at 10 years old and it burns them out and they drop out of sports altogether.
How will your experiences shape how you raise your daughter regarding sports?
My little girl has so much energy and enthusiasm. I want to be there to support her, whatever she does. If she wants to be a skier, I wouldn’t be superstoked sitting on a cold mountain the next 18 years, but I’d support her. She is going to throw herself into life with reckless abandon like I did. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
We can’t not ask about your pink hair.
It first started 11 years ago with a little bit of purple. I remember my mom saying that it was the most ridiculous thing and people wouldn’t take me seriously. I love pink, so I started to do more. I feel like myself when I have pink hair. Even the people who didn’t like it at first now say they couldn’t imagine it any other way. The thing I love most about it is people assume that because you have pink hair, maybe you are not smart. When I walk into room and do a keynote speech, nobody assumes I am the speaker. They assume I am the girl at the conference who took a wrong turn; then they realize I am fun and have something intelligent to say. For me, it is allowing people to be judgmental—and then squashing that.